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Harvick swoops to conquer at Fontana

Stewart and Hamlin's wish came true on lap 103 when David Gilliland hit the wall, bringing out the second caution of the afternoon. After everyone had pitted, Kyle Busch was in the lead ahead of Brian Vickers, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, so the risky strategy had paid off for Stewart and he was now back in sync. Alas, there was no such good news for Hamlin, who headed for the garage for the #11 to be tended to ... and never came back out again. "It's in the motor, it's smoking now," crew chief Mick Ford gloomily announced. "It looks like the thing is burned up. There's smoke coming up out of the air box."

"Obviously it was another engine failure," said Hamlin, agreeing that it was "disappointing, for sure." The ¢11 team has needed to change engines twice before races this season (Daytona and Las Vegas) but their decision not to do so again here cost them a good race showing and points to a more serious problem with engines at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Back on track, Kyle found Tony Stewart the main threat as racing got under way again. Smoke was quickly up into second and pressing hard but not quite good enough to beat Rowdy just yet. Vickers and Newman contested third and fourth while behind them Kevin Harvick had risen unnoticed to fifth place. Further back, the lower top ten positions were being fought over by the likes of Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard (who had gambled on a two tyre strategy last stop), Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Juan Montoya, Carl Edwards and a much happier Greg Biffle.

The track was still green when the cars started to come in for their next pit stops on lap 138. Kyle had a characteristically flawless pit stop and emerged 6.3s ahead of Stewart in the lead; Stewart set about closing the gap, but it was all looking rather like a done deal at this point. Surely no one could stop Kyle from climbing back to back victories?

But Kyle knows as well as anyone that the first three quarters of the race are merely prelude: as the lap counter ticked over 150, he was determined to keep up the pace and stop anyone getting too close to mount a major threat in the closing laps. Someone like Jimmie Johnson, who was ominously up to fourth place now. Busch and Johnson were soon the fastest cars on the track, and emphatically the men to beat this afternoon.

The final round of pit stops commenced on lap 167 with Kenseth who had been running in sixth. Busch, Stewart and Johnson were in next time around, and in seemed that the cooler conditions as the afternoon turned into early evening were causing Kyle to fret. He complained that the car was tight and needed a chassis adjustment, whereas Johnson couldn't have been happier and described the #48 as free and fast and needing only the requisite tyres and fuel to be good to go - for once, no pit stop fumbles blighting his day.

But Kyle's pit stop had also been flawless and fast and he was once again back out in front when the third yellow of the day came out on lap 172 for a spin by Andy Lally. It was not what Kyle wanted to see - the huge lead he had eked out over the course of the last 64 laps evaporated instantly as the pack closed up once again. Moreover, the other drivers - Stewart, Johnson, Harvick in fourth and Bowyer in fifth - all knew that this restart could be their one and only chance to strike and topple Busch. They couldn't do it - Kyle once again stretched out a lead, although for his part he found he found Stewart and Johnson starting to reel him back in. When finally Busch did start to break away it was Johnson who was best able to stay with him even as they started to drop Stewart, Harvick, Bowyer and Newman.

But the race was interrupted one final time by a caution, on lap 186 when Bobby Labonte hit the wall at turn 2, the #47 even subsequently catching fire as Labonte tried to bring it back to pit road. That delayed the opening of pit road, and with only ten laps left in the race the six leaders all decided that the right call was to stay out - while Matt Kenseth from seventh led others to pit lane in pursuit of the critical edge offered by a couple of fresh, sticky new tyres.

The green came out on lap 191. Kyle still had the speed to see off Johnson, who was right on his rear bumper, while Stewart's pace was shot and he plunged out of the top ten to be replaced in the top three by his team mate Ryan Newman.

It seemed to be all about Kyle and Jimmie: Jimmie went low but Kyle was too fast on the outside; Jimmie tried again and on lap 198 made the pass stick. He was actually going to steal the win: sure, Matt Kenseth was on fresher tyres and thundering toward them, but surely he was too far back to make it by the chequered flag. And if Kenseth couldn't make it, then - well, there was no one else who had displayed anything like the raw speed required to upset Johnson's day, surely? Okay, Kevin Harvick was suddenly popping up into third and closing fast, but ...




Related Pictures

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Kevin Harvick - Richard Childress Racing   [pic credit: NASCAR/Getty]
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John`s Chevrolet SS, finishes in eighth place Sunday, March 29, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Paul Menard, driver of the #27 Pittsburgh Paints/Menards Chevrolet, Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 STP Ford, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 Ortho Ford, Trevor Bayne, driver of the #6 AdvoCare Ford, and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, are involved in an on-track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 28, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, qualifies for fifth position Friday, March 27, 2015 for Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. Johnson is seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings.(Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
A view of a decal placed on the #14 Code 3 Associates / Mobil 1 Chevrolet, driven by Tony Stewart (not pictured), during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 27, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Wurth Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California.  (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Wurth Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California.  (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Wurth Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California.  (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Wurth Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane with girlfriend Paige White after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Wurth Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brian Vickers, driver of the Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, answers questions from media during a press conference before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California. Vickers was forced to withdraw from competition due to blood clots. (Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 22, 2015 in Fontana, California. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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